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State of Democracy's coverage of campaign finance and the role money is playing in the 2016 New Hampshire primary and beyond.0000017a-15d9-d736-a57f-17ff8ee60000

Republicans Accuse Hassan Of Taking Illegal Campaign Contributions

Update:  Thursday afternoon an attorney for the Hassan campaign asked New Hampshire Attorney General Joe Foster to expedite a review of the Republican party’s allegations.

New Hampshire Republicans have accused Gov. Maggie Hassan of accepting illegal campaign contributions from organized labor and have asked the Attorney General to investigate. At issue is a total of $45,000 in donations to the governor’s re-election campaign from three labor unions.

NHPR’s Brian Wallstin talks with host Brady Carlson about some of the issues behind this story:

The GOP says the contribution “dramatically exceeds” what the governor can accept under New Hampshire’s campaign finance rules. That should be a pretty easy call, right?

Well, you’d think so, but those rules are notoriously murky, especially when it comes to contribution limits.

The statute says candidates who don’t agree to voluntary spending caps can accept $5,000 from any source in the exploratory phase – the period before they officially declare they’re running for office. After that, they can accept $1,000 before the primary and another $1,000 before the general election.

So a total of $7,000.

Right, except that the Hassan camp is basically saying those limits don’t apply to these union contributions.

How so?

The unions gave to an entity called Friends of Maggie Hassan. In 2012, during her first run for governor, that was Hassan’s candidate committee, meaning the $7,000 limit applied.

Yesterday, the campaign apparently told reporters that Friends of Maggie Hassan was actually registered with the Secretary of State’s office as a political action committee.

Why is that relevant?

Because it’s not clear that the contribution limits can be enforced in cases when one PAC gives to another PAC.

It wasn’t in 2006, when former Gov. John Lynch accepted two contributions totaling $40,000 from PACs affiliated with national political figures who were thinking about running for president.

Apparently, precedent counts for a lot in New Hampshire.

For its part, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which gave Hassan $25,000, said it checked with the Secretary of State before making the contribution and was told it was legal.

I understand the Attorney General is going to review the GOP’s allegations? What will they focus on?

I expect they’ll want to know more about the timing of all this. The contributions were all made on June 12 – which also happens to be the day Hassan officially filed for re-election.

It’s also the day the Governor sent a letter to the Secretary of State, changing the name of her committee from Friends of Maggie Hassan to Maggie ’14.

What’s interesting about that is both entities are referred to in the letter as a candidate committee, and if that turns out to be the case, it couldn’t legally accept $45,000 in contributions and the GOP might have a point.

Obviously there are legal issues to be fleshed out here, but partisan politics are at play as well.

Of course. I spoke with attorneys on both sides of the political aisle who have election law experience.

A Republican lawyer told me he thinks the statute is pretty clear when it comes to contribution limits, but that getting legal advice from the Secretary of State may only lead to more confusion.

He tells his clients that, if you have a question about whether something is legal, go straight to the people who enforce the law, the Attorney General’s office, and get it in writing.

On the other side, a Democrat made the point that no smart politician will take an illegal campaign contribution - it’s too easy to get caught. Campaigns spend a lot time going through an opponent’s filings, looking for irregularities, and if they’re there, they’ll be found.

But they both agree there are ambiguities and loopholes in the law that need to be addressed, and perhaps the best thing that can come out this situation is legislation that might put an end to these perennial complaints.

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